March 4, 2011

Ages and Stages

What makes a book YA literature? There’s a general assumption that kids read about kids their own age or a few years older. That doesn’t mean the age of the main character can be your starting point when you’re working with a new author who wants to write for kids. You can name more than a handful of books featuring characters as young as 8 or 10 that are adult books. In The Way the Crow Flies, by Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald, the first 525 pages follow the sexual abuse of an 8-year-old girl and many of her classmates, one of whom is murdered.

Not to say you can use theme to make the determination. A number of YA novels deal with sexual abuse. You can see totally different treatments in The Mockingbirds, by Daisy Whitney, and Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. I’ve not run across books for middle-graders about sexual abuse, but consider What Jamie Saw, by Carolyn Coman, about a 9-year-old boy who witnesses and lives with the physical abuse of his baby sister by his mom’s boyfriend. Or another serious issue in On My Honor, by Marian Dane Bauer, in which a boy denies his knowledge of the drowning of a buddy to hide his involvement in it.

It’s not length either, though 525 pages would be out of the ballpark for all but a small number of books for kids aged 8 to 10. And many books in that small number would be about Harry Potter.

So what makes a book YA literature? Do we have to resort to the words of the Supreme Court Justice trying to define obscenity: “I know it when I see it”? Just about. It goes to things like: how the main character is dealing with the issue, what the author intention is, how readers will react.

Publishing houses have established categories:
Picture books are traditionally 32-page, fully illustrated books. But did you know the age divisions within that format have word limits? Under 300 words for the toddler group, 800 words for 2-5s, 1000-1200 words for 4-8s. Anything goes for style, as these are read-to books.

Beginning readers have simple sentences, a small number of words per page, but a format that feels more grown up.

Chapter books target slightly more advanced readers in early elementary school. Plot and language structure for these formats get progressively more complicated as the readers age. Read more on Write 4 Kids!

Unless you write in these early formats, you’ll probably avoid this kind of editing. A children’s book reviewer described pace in a picture book as 16 turns of the page, but that’s probably not quite enough knowledge to get you through an edit. It’s a valuable insight though.

Novels for older elementary school kids and teens are most likely the manuscripts that’ll come your way. They break out roughly into these categories:
Middle Grade (MG)  ages 8-12; 12,000 to 25,000 words  
Tween                        ages 9-14; 20,000 to 60,000 words
YA                             ages 12-and-up; 40,000 to 80,000 words

As kids age, themes intensify, from elementary-school stuff to sophisticated, gritty, edgy material. The American Library Association awards for these categories will offer good comparisons. Look at the Newbery for ages 8-12, the Printz for YA. 

While it’s valuable to categorize the manuscript, it’s a little presumptuous to categorize kids. A writer friend, Carole Dagg, has a 256-page historical fiction novel coming out next month: The Year We Were Famous. When I asked her the age target, she called it tween, G-rated, but “an awkward tween,” as the heroine is 17. According to the publisher, it’s for 12-and-up, but former-librarian Carole thinks some 9s and 10s will be reading it. 

A character older than the readers isn’t the same as a character older than his actions. I worked with an author who had a 16-year-old boy character in a YA-length manuscript who seemed to be 11 or 12. By seeing this in the dialogue, action, and motivations, she had the basis for figuring out which direction she wanted to go, which age range she wanted to target.

Do books cross category lines? Sure. Take what has been called a “skinny book” like On My Honor, at 96 pages. Or Sarah Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan, only 64 pages, with a simple, but poetic style. The publishers call both books 9-12s. And both won Newbery Awards. Or take The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. A 543-page book that won the Caldecott, the highest honor for picture books? Yes! Check it out.

Can your client set a new trend? create a new genre? “You’ll know it when you see it.” Think superlatives: astonishing story, astounding characters, daring editor, perfect timing.

But some would-be authors of kid lit, remembering their favorites, don’t read new books, don’t know age categories, just forge ahead. Your first service to them might be to help them match their intention with the industry’s expectation. If you know the categories, you might be able to see where such a character, such a story could fit and make your case for editing the book with that in mind.

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